Clouds rolled across the evening sky, dark and low, dragging rain behind them. Desert washes ran dirt-red, and rocky mesas shone wet when lightning flashed. Rainwater frothed down the narrow slot of Sheep Drop Ravine, a chasm with overgrown edges that had claimed the lives of countless sheep and antelope, and of the entire “Handsome Jake” Jubles Gang as it had fled, on a similar night, from a posse of enraged Winslow, Arizona citizens.
The Jubles Gang had been only minimally successful as train robbers and cattle rustlers, but Handsome Jake came by his nickname honestly and treated folks with elaborate courtesy. His weather-beaten good looks, good manners, and the fact that the gang had never killed anyone had caused a local press to cash in via penny pamphlet stories, casting Jake as a Robin Hood and the rest of the gang as tarnished Merry Men. Jake, who had never knowingly given a nickel to anyone, tickled his vanity by purchasing the pamphlets in bulk and scattering them around northern Arizona, thrilling youngsters and charming area women. On the night of the gang’s final ride, they had robbed the Roundhouse Saloon in Winslow of $28, leaving behind 15 cents’ worth of penny pamphlets and a bullet in the gut of the protesting barman. The gang’s run took them northeast from Winslow, across the Little Colorado River, up the side of a shallow mesa and, along with three panicked ewes, over the edge of Sheep Drop Ravine. The posse reined up in time and quickly determined the ravine was too steep and narrow to attempt recovering the bodies. Unspoken among them was the thought that seeing their wives and daughters mourning at Handsome Jake’s funeral or, alternatively, mooning around the ravine with bouquets and amateur poetry, would be highly unpleasant. They returned with a story of storm-assisted escape and the Jubles Gang faded from local history.
On the present stormy night, some hundred and forty years later, firebolts danced above the low mesa, accompanied by deeply drumming thunder. A jagged arc of lightning thrust itself out of the clouds and into the narrow bed of Sheep Drop Ravine, accompanied by an almighty loud thunderclap.
For a moment, everything was silent, even the wind and rain. Then voices:
“What a tumble!”
“They shot me!”
“Boys,” said a fourth voice, raspy yet melodious, “mount up. Let’s get out of this forsaken arroyo.” This was followed by whistles, the jingle of tack, calls of “C’m’ere, you!” and the confused baa-ing of sheep.
A few minutes later, as the storm moved east and the rain subsided, four mounted figures emerged from the low end of the ravine: Chester “Plotz-Nose” Collins, Little Billy Wilcox, and John Horne, each riding a black, ember-eyed steed streaming fire from iron hooves, and Handsome Jake Jubles himself. Jake’s mount, a large palomino mare he called Tempe, was having trouble with her hooves, which merely smoked a bit, and she had to shake her head periodically to keep her eyes lit up. Having more gumption and more sweetness than any other horse Jake had ever met, Tempe was perhaps a bit less damned, or maybe a little more alive than the others.
Behind the gang trotted three sheep, glowing softly. Sensitive to dramatic appearances, John Horne and Little Billy chased them off.
Jake reined around and surveyed his crew on their fiery mounts. “Well,” he drawled, “I don’t have to tell you boys, we did not ride out of that ravine in the same condition we went in.”
John Horne shrugged. “Seems harsh. T’were only twenty-eight dollars.”
“Dammit,” said Little Billy, who against all expectation was quite a small man. “Goddammit it, Plotz, we was shaping up to be legends. Why’d you have to go and shoot that bartender?”
“It was a robbery! What kind of barman doesn’t consent to being robbed? Besides,” said Chester, pointing at two holes in his shirt, “they shot me! We gotta get to a doctor!”
Jake shook his head. “Chester, look at the horse you are riding. Look at Little Billy and John Horne there, glowing like swamp trees on a moonlit night. Shot or not, the fall into that ravine killed us all, but for some eldritch reason we have ridden out again. My question to you, gentlemen, is what are we going to do now?”
Even dead, the gang was firm in their purpose. Little Billy spoke first: “Dammit, we find another damn saloon and we damn well rob it!”
“Cattle. Rustle a hundred head. Easy on these here horses,” opined John Horne, tugging one end of his mustache.
But as the clouds continued to part, Jake caught a gleam of distant, familiar motion. He said, “Boys, let’s rob a train.”
Billy and John cheered. As the gang thundered off, otherworldly steeds trailing fire and smoke, Chester’s voice rang above the tumult: “But I was shot! And what does ‘eldritch’ mean?”
An hour later, the gang sat on their horses on a low ridge. Above them the moon, gray and cold, drifted among tattered clouds. Below them, empty railroad tracks stretched east and west, disappearing into the moon-bleached brush. Jake’s horse, snorting, shifted away from Little Billy’s mount, dancing in devilish excitement and striking sparks against the rocky ground. No one seemed inclined to speak.
Eventually, John Horne coughed and said, “Strangest train I ever saw.”
“More’n a mile long, I bet,” John Horne added. He looked at the gang. Jake continued to stare into the distance. Chester was looking cross-eyed at the pimples on his nose, no doubt selecting one to pop. Little Billy’s face was screwed up and growing red with anger—or would have been red, John thought, before they all took that mortal tumble. Now none of them had much color, ’cept the hell-blackened steeds and golden Tempe. As John Horne watched, the steam kettle of Little Billy’s indignation signaled tea time.
“Goddammit!” Billy exploded. “What damn kind of goddamn train was that? Nothing but huge damn boxes! No windows! You all saw it. And the damn engines! Five of ’em! And so tall, a man on a horse ain’t got an honest goddamn chance of jumping aboard!”
Jake sighed again. “Maybe someone invented a robbery-proof train.”
“Horseman-proof, maybe,” said John Horne, shifting his mount closer to Jake’s. “Ain’t no train blast-proof. Find a mine works, lift some dynamite, we could . . . ”
“And that damn paint!” Billy’s anger was still a-boil. “Some of those big boxes all painted up with fat damn letters ain’t nobody can read. What is the goddamn point of that?”
Chester, who had allowed his horse to wander across the ridge while he worked on his nose, now returned. “You can’t read, Billy,” he said. Then he added, “Boss, something else is going on over thataway. Littler trains, maybe? Moving at a good clip.”
“I can damn well recognize writing when I see it,” Billy grumbled as the gang followed Chester. “Don’t have to be able to read it.”
From a higher point on the ridge, looking away from the railroad tracks, the gang could see a pair of broad, black roads slicing across the desert. On the nearer one, various-sized coaches did seem to be coupled together behind a large engine, but suddenly the smallest coach moved out of line and sped ahead. Two other coaches followed, and the rest settled back into position behind the largest vehicle. Each coach had lights front and back. No one could quite figure out what they were seeing until John Horne said, “Horseless carriages!” The other men looked at him and he shrugged. “Saw one in Denver once. Ran on steam.”
“Was it similar to those machines down there?” asked Jake, looking skeptical.
John Horne shrugged again. “Naw. One I saw was like a box with a little coal burner. But what else can they be?”
“Indeed. Gentlemen,” said Jake, urging Tempe to the front of the group, “Let’s ride that road and see what else they can be.”
• • • •
George Hanover sprawled across the front seat of his wife’s car and focused on not throwing up. He’d heard you could get a fast drunk from pounding several bottles of cold medicine, but how had anyone kept the stuff down long enough to find out? Mixing cherry and licorice flavors was definitely not helping. With a groan, he thrust open the driver-side door and fell onto the sand. As he started vomiting, George was faintly pleased that he hadn’t messed up Irene’s beloved ’57 Desoto Firedome.
Except he had.
George wiped his mouth and nose on his shirt sleeve and climbed groggily back into the car. He didn’t have to look to know the back seat was filled with fast food bags, soda cups, beer bottles, and stale fries. The passenger foot well held four empty cold medicine bottles and a hollow pint of bourbon. The white leather seat was sticky with red and green droplets and littered with safety caps and dosage cups. In the middle of the stains and trash, dark and final against the white leather, lay the .38 Webley he’d bought, oh, thirty years ago and found last week when he was searching the house for money to buy booze. It had been two days after Tony’s memorial service and close on three years after Irene’s funeral and, in that sober moment, George realized that he’d never really dealt with his grief at the loss of his wife. He had leaned on his friendship with Tony and persuaded himself he was coping, but Tony’s death had left him facing two gaping wounds of sorrow, self-pity, and loneliness. The weight of the revolver in his hand had seemed like a sign. The box of cartridges in the drawer provided the exclamation point.
It had taken a week for him to figure out where he’d do it and to work up the courage, and in that time he’d pawned his last, best saddle and thus had cash for more cheap booze, keeping him nicely drunk right up until that very afternoon. He’d stopped by Hutchinson’s Two Pump to buy a last bottle of decent bourbon, only to have Merlene cut him off. She’d said in her dusty, disinterested voice that Mack Hutchinson had told her not to sell George Hanover any more booze until next week, and George knew he’d never persuade Merlene to take his money and give him a bottle because Merlene Did Not Care. She didn’t care about George, she didn’t care about Mack, she dressed and smoked like she didn’t care about herself, and she rigorously followed the rules at the Two Pump because deviation would require a spark of compassion or curiosity or mischief that Merlene had either thoroughly stomped down or hadn’t had to begin with.
George had stared, flummoxed, at the small, Native woman as she returned to her paperback mystery. He could drive the mile into Holbrook and buy liquor at any number of convenience stores, but just before she’d died, he’d promised Irene he would buy booze only at the Two Pump, just as Mack Hutchinson had promised that he wouldn’t let George buy too much liquor at any one time or more than a couple of days together. Breaking his last promise to Irene seemed a worse betrayal than killing himself, and he had wandered around the small store until the cold medicine caught his eye. Tony had once described a bloody DUI scene in which the Influence had been cold medicine. Irene had extracted no promises concerning cold medicine. George grabbed two bottles of licorice-flavor and two of cherry-flavor and dumped them on the counter.
Merlene had continued to read for a moment, then carefully inserted a bookmark. She looked at the bottles and looked at George and said, “Planning on not feeling well?”
She’d been right about that. George swallowed against another eruption of cherry, licorice, and bile and reached for the revolver. It would be easier if he were more drunk, but this was as drunk as he was going to get. As he angled the revolver into his open mouth, he heard a male voice say, “Dammit! Why’s he want to go and do some goddamn fool thing like that?”
• • • •
While George had been downing and upping cold medicine, the Jubles gang had been trying to figure out the eastbound lanes of Interstate 40. At first, they’d ridden among speeding horseless carriages, an easy task on their otherworldly steeds, hollering and brandishing their revolvers. No one paid them any attention. Finally John Horne jumped from his horse to the top of a large, boxy vehicle. He tried to cling to the luggage rack as he would have on a stagecoach. The rest of the gang, keeping pace, could see that his lower legs had passed through the roof and his right boot occupied the same space as the head of a passenger. Realizing this himself, he dropped into and through the vehicle until he stood on the road. He started walking, passing into and out of speeding carriages like frames in a nickelodeon, until he stepped over the white stripe and into the desert.
The gang was waiting for him. As John mounted his horse, Little Billy slammed one fist into the other and said, “Dammit, don’t tell me we’re just goddamn ghosts!”
The other three looked at him. Jake said, “What have you been thinking we are?”
“Spooks, dammit! My granny’s house was next to a graveyard and you couldn’t go a day without some damn spook screaming at you or hitting you with an iron or a poker or a goddamn frying pan.” Billy glared at the gang and said, “It’s true, dammit! Spooks can do things, and those spooks was damn mean. Granny was the only one of us dared use the damn outhouse.”
“And ghosts are not the same as spooks?”
“No, Jake, they are not. Ghosts are goddamn useless.”
Jake, looking thoughtful, nudged Tempe into an eastward trot. John Horne, riding beside him, said, “What’s the plan?”
“I have no plan,” Jake said. “But I feel strongly that we must head toward Holbrook and that we must steal something.”
John Horne nodded. “I do feel a mighty itch toward robbery.”
“And this robbery—our final robbery—must happen without incident.”
“Tell that to Plotz.”
A little while later, Jake slowed Tempe to a walk and pointed ahead. “Boys, what do you make of that?”
Parked on a dirt road about fifty yards from the highway was a coach unlike any the gang had seen before in death or in life. It was nearly twenty feet long, a rich, dark color in the moonlight, with a jaunty white stripe and a white fabric cover stretched over ribs—sort of like an old Conestoga wagon, John Horne remarked. The gang reined up at a distance to admire the marvelous machine.
“That coach must fly along the road,” Jake said. “That is the first vehicle we’ve seen that I would like to ride in.”
“Maybe it actually flies,” said Chester, flapping his hands. “Are those wings folded up along the sides?”
John Horne leaned forward, squinting. “Someone’s inside.”
“Let’s rob him!” Chester spurred his horse ahead.
“We can’t,” moaned Billy. “I told you, we’re just damn ghosts.”
Jake shrugged. “We must try, one last time.” Jake urged Tempe ahead and cut off Chester’s sudden advance. “Remember who we are, gentlemen. We will approach calmly, speak courteously, and, if possible, take everything of any value whatsoever.”
• • • •
“Dammit! Why’s he want to go and do some goddamn fool thing like that?”
Hearing the voice, George looked up to see four men peering into the car. Four men and one horse. Four very pale men who glowed faintly in the moonlight and a tall palomino that gleamed. He considered ignoring them and pulling the trigger, but that seemed rude. He looked them over again—four men in dead-white makeup and old-timey western costumes. Removing the revolver barrel from his mouth, George said, “Uh, hello.”
This seemed entirely inadequate, so he added, “I guess you’re making another movie around here?” He didn’t recognize the man holding the palomino’s reins, but the guy was Hollywood handsome and probably the star of the film.
The movie star pushed his hat up with a crooked finger and said, “Pardon?”
“A movie,” George said, “or maybe a commercial? You’re actors.”
“Actors? We ain’t no goddamn actors!” The smallest man stepped forward and smacked his hand down on the car’s roof, but missed. “We’re gentlemen of damn fortune!”
“Dame Fortune,” murmured the skinny Black man wearing an enormous mustache.
“That’s what I said—damn Dame Fortune!”
The star of the group spoke again. “Friend,” he said, “We are the Jubles Gang and we are wondering why, on a damp yet beautiful night, you are seemingly intent on blowing your brains out.”
George was about to tell them to mind their own business when he noticed three more horses a few yards back. Big, coal-black horses with gleaming red eyes. As he watched, one shook its head and snorted fire.
“Wow!” Despite his grim mission, George was impressed. “What are those black horses? Animatronics? Amazing what special effects can do these days.”
The three men who had already spoken just stared at him. The fourth man, tall and gangly with a huge, zit-pocked nose, said, “Mister, we don’t know what you’re talking about. Mister, we’re dead.”
The other men nodded, and the smallest man said, “That’s what we are, dead and come back as goddamn ghosts. Not spooks, dammit!” He waved his arms. “I don’t know why you want to eat lead, Mister, but we can tell you, there ain’t no damn pleasure in being a ghost.”
George was about to object to this silliness when the little man’s flailing arms tickled his brain. When he’d smacked the car roof earlier, he couldn’t have missed, George realized, because his fingers had passed within a few inches of George’s face, right inside the car.
Setting down the Webley, George got out of the car. The men stepped back and then George lunged and sure enough, his hands passed right through the little man’s chest.
“Goddammit!” said the man, stumbling backward, “Is that any way to act to the folks that saved your damn life?”
Rubbing his suddenly cold hands together, George scanned the area, checking for some sort of machinery that could be projecting an interactive hologram. Could they even do that? This brought him nose-to-nose with the palomino horse, which reached forward and gently nuzzled his cheek. The horse’s warm, sweet breath stirred memories of better days.
“This horse certainly isn’t dead,” said George, scratching its chin.
“Tempe is special,” said the handsome man. “I am Jake Jubles, and these gentlemen are John Horne, Little Billy Wilcox, and Chester Collins.”
“George Hanover.” George automatically held out his hand to shake. The men looked at it, and then Little Billy snorted and slapped his hand at George’s and, of course, it passed through rather than making contact.
“We are,” Jake continued, “The Jubles Gang.” When George didn’t respond, he added, “The Jake Jubles Gang. The Handsome Jake Jubles Gang.”
“Oh?” George said.
“You have likely heard of us,” Jake continued. “We ranged all over this area at one time. Our last job was robbing the Roundhouse Saloon in Winslow.”
“Can’t say I have,” said George.
“Goddammit, Plotz!” Little Billy rounded on the tall man and poked him in the chest. “We was shaping up to be heroes! Then you go and . . . ”
“It was a robbery,” Chester began, “What kind of barman . . . ”
“That’s enough, boys.” Jake gathered up Tempe’s reins and prepared to mount. “Remembered or not, we have an appointment in Holbrook.” Looking down at George from Tempe’s tall back he added, “Are you coming with us?”
George looked at the three pale men mounting their devilish steeds and at Jake on golden Tempe. Then he looked at Irene’s Desoto, at the mess on the seats and at the dark, ominous Webley. The revolver gazed back at him expectantly. “Damn right I’m coming,” he said. Taking just enough time to chuck the Webley into the glove compartment and lock up the car, George turned to see Jake holding out a hand to swing him up onto Tempe.
“Is that going to work?” he asked.
Jake laughed and shook his head and said, “Use the stirrup and climb on up—you cannot hurt me. But do sit back on Tempe’s rump. She won’t let you fall.”
They trotted on eastward, the gang silent, George appreciating Tempe’s easy gait. After a while, he said, “Tempe. Did you name her after the city here?”
“No. Her full name is,” Jake paused and then said quickly, “Tempestua.”
“Don’t you ‘oh’ me. I didn’t name the horse. I let a girl do that.”
“Don’t say it that way, either. The girl in question was my little sister, Janie.”
Jake said, “The minute I saw Tempe, I knew she had heart and grit to spare. It didn’t matter to me what she looked like. But Janie was thirteen and full of romantic notions, and she thought Tempe was the perfect horse for a princess. I was leaving to come West, so I invited Janie to name her.”
“Did you ever see her again?”
“I did not.” Jake pulled Tempe up, letting the others ride ahead. “I always meant to go back to Ohio to meet Janie’s family, or to bring her back with me if she didn’t have any one, but I never did.” Jake shook his head.
“Hey, maybe that’s why you’re back, to find out what happened to Janie! You could look up her descendants.”
Jake was quiet for a moment and then said, “No, it is not that. I am feeling an almighty draw, but it’s not to Ohio. We were brought back to steal something, and to do it right this time. We were planning on robbing you, but circumstances prevented it.”
“You were going to rob me?” George felt both offended and oddly pleased. “Wait, what circumstances?”
Jake said, “The most telling circumstance is that as ghosts, it seems not a one of us is able to lift or move any object, not a bar of gold, not a penny. And the other”—here Jake shifted in the saddle and looked back at George—“is that robbing a suicide is somewhat outside the Jubles Gang’s code.”
“You’ve got a code?” said George, and then Jake’s use of the exact word hit him—he had almost committed suicide, had nearly blown his brains out all over the white interior of Irene’s Firedome. Would have blown his brains out, if he hadn’t encountered this gang of cowboy Caspers.
“Well, it isn’t written down, but we strive to be firm yet polite.” Jake smiled wryly. “Folks are more cooperative and it saves on bullets and hangings.”
Suicide. Ghosts. George reached down to rub Tempe’s flank, which felt blessedly warm and real. Then he realized that Jake was waiting expectantly, and he asked, “So what are you and the gang going to do now?”
“Something brought us back and it seems Something wants to us to do a robbery up in Holbrook. And I’m fairly sure, now, that Something wants us to do the robbery with you.”
“Me? Jake, I’m no thief,” George said, about to slide off Tempe’s rump. “And I’ve got to live in this town.”
“What do you care? You didn’t seem to be worried about the taint of suicide.”
That word again, the sure and final product of his misery. Then it hit George that, for the last hour or so, he had not felt miserable for the first time in weeks. Confused, yes. Disbelieving, yes, and still a little queasy, but also interested, amused, and, well, liked. And liking—Jake had an undeniable charm and the rest of the gang had accepted him with no questions. And there was Tempe. George and Irene had always had horses, and Irene had been a barrel racer. Then the cancer had come and the horses had gone, neglected and too expensive to keep. And then Irene had gone too, and Tony, and here he was riding the range with four dead outlaws and a horse that was by all rights dead but felt very much alive.
“Wait,” George said, “How is it that you are all dead together? And why are those horses so hellish and Tempe here so solid?”
All four men spoke at the same time and George could only catch snippets of “Dammit” and “Posse” and “Ravine” and “Only twenty-eight dollars.”
“Gentlemen!” Jake’s voice rang out. “After a regrettably botched robbery . . . ”
“ . . . in a storm much like the one earlier tonight, we mistakenly ran over the edge of a ravine. A few hours ago, we rode out again, just as you find us. And Tempe,” Jake smiled and shrugged. “As we have already discussed, Tempe is special.”
“Town ahead,” said John Horne.
Above the next rise, George could see the glow of Holbrook’s lights.
John Horne continued, “Going to rob a saloon or a bank?”
George looked at the gang’s expectant faces. He couldn’t imagine walking into any local bar and holding it up, even if he had brought the Webley. Banks were completely out of the question, of course, due to the hour and the fact that, as messed up as he’d been lately, he wasn’t an idiot.
George cleared his throat and said, “These days, robbers looking for quick cash go for convenience stores.” In response to the gang’s blank looks, he added “They’re open all night and they sell liquor and fuel, candy, stuff like that.” He mentally mapped the distance to the last convenience store on the far side of Holbrook, figuring how much time he had to get out of helping the gang with their theft.
“Is that one?” Chester pointed straight at Hutchinson’s Two Pump, about six hundred yards to the left and lit up like a very seedy Christmas tree.
George imagined Merlene at the counter, bent over her latest paperback. “No! I mean, yes, but that one’s hardly worth robbing.” He struggled to sound nonchalant. “There’s much better pickings in Holbrook proper.”
The gang was silent for a moment, gazing at the Two Pump. Then Jake said, “No, George, this is the place. The pull that tugged us out of that ravine tonight definitely leads here.” The other three nodded solemnly.
George swallowed, imagining Merlene’s face when he announced he was there to empty the cash register. But then, he thought, it wouldn’t be any different from the look on her face when she had sold him four bottles of cold medicine. She would call Mack or the cops, sure, if things went too far, but she wouldn’t judge him. Or rather, it was clear Merlene had long ago judged the world and everyone in it, and was thus immune to further disappointment. And helping the gang seemed to be the only way to end this odd adventure. “Okay, let’s do it,” he said.
George slid off Tempe’s rump as they approached the Two Pump because he didn’t want Merlene to see him—what? Floating in? Riding on a horse’s rump like an idiot? He didn’t know if she would be able to see Tempe or not, or the gang, for that matter. They were starting to look a bit ragged around the edges to him, and if his legs and ass weren’t sore from the unaccustomed riding, he would wonder if he’d actually pulled the trigger back in Irene’s car. Concerned, he asked why he could see the gang at all. Jake said, “Billy is the spiritualism expert here,” and Billy said, “Well, dammit, children can see ghosts, and dogs for some damn reason, and folks who are near death, and drunks.” George felt he wasn’t even a little drunk anymore, and then it hit him: he was no longer near death, either. Jake and Tempe and this ridiculous adventure had pulled him out of despair, at least for the moment.
He owed the gang this favor.
As the men dismounted near the two gas pumps, George glanced toward the store. Merlene was still intent in her book. He looked at Jake and said, “How will this work?”
Jake stepped forward. “Gentlemen,” he said, “Mr. Hanover has generously consented to perform this final robbery on our account, which means he is now a member of the Jubles gang.”
“Damn straight,” Little Billy whooped. “You stay with us, George, and dammit, we’ll show you a time! But Jake, shouldn’t we do the initiation before the damn robbery?”
“He was drunk when we found him,” John Horne said.
Jake motioned George aside. “You know you have to do this on your own,” he said. “The boys and I will come with you, but it is your job, and I feel certain this is why we met you. I don’t know why you were unfortunate enough to meet us, but there it is.”
“I’m glad we met,” George said, holding out his hand.
Jake considered for a moment and then very carefully fitted his pale hand into George’s. The men shook up and down slowly, once. George noticed that Jake’s hand was a bit less cold, a bit less there than Billy’s chest had been at the start of this strange adventure. He turned toward the Two Pump, straightened his shirt, and marched inside, trailed by the gang.
• • • •
For the past 10 minutes, Merlene had been glancing aside from her book to watch George Hanover as he paced around the area between the pumps. He was talking to himself, looking at the store, and turning in circles. Crazy old white guy. Well, as long as he kept his crazy outside, Merlene didn’t care.
Fifteen years working night shifts at the Two Pump meant she had dealt with her share of crazy, drunken, and just plain rude men and women. She always responded with her stony stare and, in all that time, she’d only had to call Mack twice and the police once. As George entered and shuffled over to the sunglasses display, mumbling to himself, she knew she could handle him. He was a sad and harmless old man. She went back to her book.
After George, still muttering, started toward the counter and then swerved to study the mixed nuts display, Merlene put her book aside and frankly watched him. He didn’t seem to notice, stepping forward, circling back, and continually whispering. For a minute Merlene wondered if George had some sort of cold medicine poisoning and if she could be held responsible, but she quickly pushed that notion to the back of her mind with every other uncertainty of her life. Along with most of the certainties as well, like the one that she was terminally unhappy, going through the motions of the very minimum of life until it ended. Her auntie Leeah, who taught psychology at the university in Flagstaff, was always telling her to get on medication and get out of town for some exercise, or at the very least to cultivate an appreciation for the absurd and the sublime in life. Her auntie Naomi, out on the rez, wanted her to have a healing ceremony to find balance and beauty. Merlene knew they were, in essence, both giving her the same good advice, just as she knew that following it would require effort she wasn’t capable of. She could just about deal with daily life and Mack and customers like George, who had finally made his shuffling, mumbling way up to the counter.
Merlene stared at him.
“Uh, could I have . . . I mean, that is,” George said, then stopped and looked to his right. He cleared his throat and said, “Merlene, give me a bag.”
Without breaking eye contact, Merlene reached down and pulled out one of the brown paper bags they used for single bottles of liquor. She slapped it onto the counter.
Jake watched George shake the paper bag open and glance at him. Jake nodded, relieved that the man was finally getting down to business. The pull to steal something had been getting stronger and stronger as George waffled, and now dawn was coming. Jake felt this job needed to be over and done with before the sun rose over Holbrook.
At the counter, the boys were wondering at all the different kinds of booze and cigarettes. Jake watched as George, a couple of aisles over, grabbed items and stuffed them into the bag. The only thing Jake considered worth stealing here was money, and he knew that would be in the cash register up near the Indian woman, but when he’d told George that, George had whispered, “I’ve got an idea that might work this all out.” Jake knew they had no choice but to trust him.
Approaching the counter, George held up the bulging paper bag and said, “Merlene, I am . . . ” He glanced at the gang, looking hopeful by the liquor and cigarettes, and at Jake, standing by the counter. “We are—I mean, the Jubles gang is taking this stuff and we are not going to pay for it.”
At that moment, Jake felt the pull that had become increasingly urgent ease away. His boys were laughing and slapping each other’s backs and Little Billy said, “That’s how you do it, George! Keep it up and you’ll be a goddamn legend someday!”
Fading, knowing he and the gang were wanted Elsewhere, Jake said, “It worked! What did you steal?” George opened the bag and the rich smell of chocolate wafted out. Jake saw wrapped rectangles that read “$100 Grand” and “Payday,” and small ingot-shaped bars wrapped in gold paper. He grinned. “Thank you, George,” he said, “You are a true friend and lifetime—beyond lifetime!—member of the Jubles gang.”
As George watched, Jake and the gang faded completely away. Then Jake’s rich, raspy voice whispered in his ear, “Take care of her.”
“Oh no,” George said quickly, “We’re not like that. Merlene and I are just . . . ” As George searched for an appropriate word, certainly not “friends,” Merlene began to laugh. And laugh and laugh—not the half-cough, half-grunt George had heard from her over the years when Mack told a weak joke, but a full, rolling tumble of laughter. George gazed at Merlene, her mouth open, cheeks bunched, short, graying hair moving with the slight jerking of her head, and he wondered at the beauty produced by joy.
For her part, Merlene was reacting in the only possible way to the absurd, sublime, beautiful impossibility materializing behind George, next to the dusty rack of Route 66 souvenirs. As she laughed, she could feel her heart and soul opening, tender cracks radiating outward.
George was standing there staring at Merlene, clutching the forgotten bag of chocolates, when he felt a soft breath in his ear. He turned and there she was, exactly what he needed to live and to care for and to heal. Jake had left him a treasure indeed.
Spread the word!